Giving Israel's National Library a New Home, Without Destroying the Old

Although the current design competition for the National Library, which follows an earlier contest that was nullified, calls for a new structure, architects should suggest a less wasteful retooling of the existing one.

A few months ago, the competition for the design of a new structure for the National Library in Jerusalem was canceled. Earlier this month, the Israel National Library Construction Company, which represents Yad Hanadiv ‏(as the Rothschild Foundation in Israel is called‏), announced its intention to hold a new competition. Yad Hanadiv has pledged some $150 million for the building of the new facility.

The surprise winner of the first competition, a relatively young and anonymous architect named Rafi Segal, was disqualified “in light of flaws that were discovered” in his proposal. What were the flaws? The library construction company did not elaborate. The issue is now in the hands of the courts, but frankly, there is no need to rehash speculation on the nature of those flaws − whether personal, architectural, legal or political.

On the surface, the two competitions would appear to be very different. The first was open and anonymous, and provided an almost equal opportunity for any architect to win the grand prize. Participation in the second one, however, has been limited, and is subject to such criteria as the architects’ seniority and previous experience, his or her firm’s size, etc.; also, even in the initial stage, it will not be anonymous.

Furthermore, whereas the first competition was in essence between the architectural plans themselves, in the second, it is between architects, with emphasis being placed on the candidates’ suitability for the competition and on their ability “to create a fruitful dialogue with the client.”

From the standpoint of the construction company and Yad Hanadiv, Segal was simply an “unknown quantity.” The second competition will prevent any recurrence of that sort of unpleasant surprise.

However, although the nature of this contest has changed, the core problem remains: In both competitions, the goal is to elicit plans for a new National Library building, and also the fundamental assumption in both is that new premises are the only architectural possibility for “realizing the vision of the renewed library,” as noted in the letter to prospective participants in the competition. Despite the twists and turns that ultimately led to Segal’s disqualification, and despite the discomfort suffered by those affected by the disqualification, a new opportunity has arisen for opting for a different direction: Instead of holding a competition for the planning of a new, superfluous building that will spread over more than three acres and contain total floor space of 40,000 square meters, Yad Hanadiv and the library construction company would do better to declare a competition for the best plan for renovating the library’s existing building and adapting it to meet the needs of a 21st-century library. The existing structure has magnificently stood for half a century at its present site, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus, and it can continue to do so for many more years to come, instead of moving to the new government complex that is being developed a short distance away. The tapping of its potential would undoubtedly provide a solution to the needs of a 21st-century library and would be an example of genuinely green, environmentally friendly architecture.

In the letter to potential competitors, David Blumberg, who chairs the National Library’s board of directors, writes that the “new building is not an end in itself.” He is quite correct here. What remains is to internalize this message, even if that was not his intention.

The construction of a new building can be seen as “an end in itself.” The use of the existing structure, after it has been suitably renovated, on the other hand, would be the realization of the “vision of the renewed library.”

It is hard to imagine, however, that the Israel National Library Construction Company will back down from the idea of new premises. After all, the company was founded for just that purpose. Nonetheless, that is no reason to give up hope. This must be the mission of the architects who will participate in the competition.

Misguided approach

The Israel Association of United Architects recently published a letter protesting the cancellation of the first competition, and announced that it would recommend that its members not participate in the second one. This, too, is a misguided approach. It would be much more helpful if the association were to urge all participants to break the contest’s rules and instead submit plans for the renewal of the library’s present building.

Actually, the term “break the contest’s rules” is not quite accurate. It would be more precise to say that participants should be urged to take a bold step − one that would prevent the creation of yet another flashy, wasteful, expensive and unnecessary project and which will save the present building from becoming an abandoned structure. Furthermore, such a move would truly be historic.

Paradoxically, the stringent and less “democratic” prerequisites of the second competition, which have angered many architects, have the potential to open the door to an act of civil − and professional − disobedience. Architects who manage to pass the initial, strict screening process and are deemed to be suitable for participation will be seasoned, well-known and highly respected professionals. Their chances of spearheading such a move and obtaining “political” gains are far greater than those of young architects who have just begun their professional careers − the type who typically participate in open competitions.

Moreover, those same architects who have already experienced their professional breakthroughs and are well established in the field can more easily absorb the prospect of losing a competition without worrying that a rejected proposal might endanger their professional future. The very professional skills that enable them to participate in competitions, their self-confidence and expertise, will also enable them to set aside their architectural egos and the urge to create yet one more building from the foundations, and instead to channel their talents into worthier projects. This could be their greatest hour.

An unusual competition is currently under way in New York: The “Competition of Competitions” calls for a change in the agenda of architectural competitions and for architects to ask themselves “what needs of society architecture should aspire to serve.” This innovative contest calls upon architects to act not as passive participants who obey predetermined demands, but rather as partners in formulating the competition’s program itself. Organized by the Storefront for Art and Architecture, it is open to architects the world over. Architects from Israel who participate can bring the competition’s message back to the Holy Land as well.

The Bezalel contest

Another project in Jerusalem, one intended to create a new academic campus in the city’s center for Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, is now in the final stretch, after undergoing trials and tribulations similar to those of the competition for the new National Library building.

The previous, open international planning competition for Bezalel, won by a German-Turkish architecture firm, was annulled two years ago on grounds that the planners lacked the experience required for the task. In a second competition, which was limited only to invited participants, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates ‏(SANAA‏) − a Japanese-based architectural office with an international reputation − were chosen.

In the Bezalel contest, too, the difference between the two rounds of competition appears to be major at first, but is actually very small. Here as well, the question of the justification for the creation of a new, showy, wasteful and unnecessary campus was never part of the competition’s program − participants were not offered the option of competing over a design for renovation of existing structures in the center of Jerusalem and adapting them to the needs of a modern academic campus.

As an institution committed to teaching the values of sustainability to future generations of designers and architects, Bezalel should be a champion of the option of renewing existing structures and enabling them to fulfill the needs of the 21st century. In this, it could serve as an example for other institutions.

Emil Salman